It’s all fun and games till someone gets hurt—as a recent incident proved to a customer in a bar in Delhi, who downed his drink which was topped by a wafting cloud created by liquid nitrogen. Only to develop stomach cramps and be rushed to hospital with a gaping hole in his stomach lining, which had led to stomach fluids and half-digested food in his stomach spilling out into his other internal organs. It’s frankly quite a miracle that he survived.
And a miracle, that this is the first medical calamity which has occurred ever since Delhi’s restaurateurs and bartenders decided that they’re the love child(ren) of Heston Blumenthal and P.C. Sorcar. Liquid nitrogen has been used in kitchens for a while, but in the last few years it has made its way from restaurant kitchens to restaurant dining tables. Ever since Masterchef Australia entered our world and people saw Blumenthal make magical foods engulfed in what seemed to be mist—our restaurants and bars have also started doing the same. While most people can’t spell or pronounce Molecular Gastronomy in Delhi, they all want to eat food at Molecular Gastronomy bars and restaurants.
Three years ago, when the first molecular gastronomy restaurant in Gurgaon had opened, I had been invited for a tasting. The Karela looked like squid rings, a dessert looked like a Parle-G biscuit, there were shiny little globules which, when you bit into them, turned out to be mishti doi or some such. But I’ll never forget when I was served a dessert by the chef, who emerged from the kitchen sans gloves or goggles with a small jug in his hand. He asked me to lean away from the plate while he poured liquid nitrogen into it, while telling me calmly that I shouldn’t eat the dessert right now and should wait for the smoke which he’d created, to dissipate. Because I know how dangerous liquid nitrogen can be, I didn’t touch the dessert for almost five minutes after the liquid nitrogen evaporated—and even after that, with caution.
I also marveled at how he was carrying around this little jug of liquid nitrogen as calmly as if it was filled with double cream. The dessert, for the record, was rubbish because everything on the plate had frozen to a crisp. Much like the innards of the diner who was rushed to hospital and what would have happened to mine, if I’d eaten a spoonful a second too soon. And let’s keep in mind that most of these restaurants allow children in them, who can easily plunge their hand into the bowl to play with the mist wafting out. But hey, at least they’ll get a crash course in molecular gastronomy and chemistry, even if they lose a limb in the process.
Multiple restaurateurs and chefs have now been interviewed and said that most people using liquid nitrogen aren’t even trained to do so. That you’re not supposed to handle it without proper apparatus. But try explaining that to our gimmicky news restaurants in the Delhi.
And therein lies the problem. We’ve become so cool for school that the focus is no longer on the food. It’s on the gimmick. So, you pay good money to sit in a restaurant which looks like a prison and be served by waiters who are dressed as prisoners. Because hey, that’s such fun. Another one lets you sit in those massive cement pipes which are used as sewage pipes and which you see homeless people take shelter in on the side of the road. Because there’s nothing like some Prison Chic or Poverty Chic to make Delhi’s denizens feel “with it".
Drinks and cocktails are served in an IV or saline drip bag, a large syringe, or a flower pot or a beaker or if you’re really lucky, in a mini bathtub. Food in restaurants which will set you back an arm and a leg is served in dented aluminum “crockery" or what I call prisonware, or in brown paper bags. I’m surprised some restaurants don’t ask you to wash up and help them chop vegetables in the kitchen after you’ve finished your meal.
That liquid nitrogen is being served with gay abandon and no warning to diners, is therefore frankly no surprise. Although I do believe that the responsibility for burning a hole in a diner’s stomach lies solely on the chef, bartender or restaurant. Not on the diner. To expect a diner, that to someone at a bar who may have had a few drinks too many, to understand fully how dangerous the drink that has been served to him is is ridiculous. This is like being served Fugu or Pufferfish at a restaurant and being told “be careful" and not that you may literally die if the fish hasn’t been cleaned properly.
For the record, Japan which has thousands of Fugu restaurants, has laws about the preparation of Fugu. Fugu chefs are trained for years, following which they’re given an official certificate allowing them to prepare and serve the fish in restaurants. At the end of the training session, the chefs undergo one final test where they have to prepare the Fugu and then eat it.
It’s a great way of ensuring they don’t kill diners. Maybe we should do the same to bartenders serving ingredients which can seriously harm you. If only Heston Blumenthal knew of his impact on Indian restaurants and diners’ stomach linings.
And since I started with one cliché, let me end with another. (I just killed two of my journalism professors and at least two editors, with that one sentence.) Always remember that there is no smoke without fire, before downing anything made with liquid nitrogen. And that fire will be the burning of your gullet or your gut, just because you wanted to see your fancy cocktail or dessert engulfed in mist. If you really like mist, go to Mukteshwar or the Alps. Stand on a hilltop with a cocktail in your hand, and let the mist engulf you. More natural, less poisonous.
Also, my sincere request to restaurants in the National Capital Region especially is—cut the gimmickry. Serve us food in proper plates and glasses and in interiors which don’t make us feel as if we’ve lost our life’s belongings or are incarcerated. We’ve all worked hard (or for Delhi rich kids, their grandparents did) to earn money to pay the fat bill at your restaurant. Show us some love. Oh, and don’t kill us or burn a gaping hole in our stomachs while doing so, please.